Despite mental health troubles, Jacksonville shooter was able to buy guns in Maryland

By his 16th birthday, David Katz had been admitted to Sheppard Pratt Hospital, had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication and had the police called on him more than once by his mother.

None of it prevented him from buying a handgun in Maryland.

Katz’s troubles — at least what’s documented in public court records — fall below state thresholds that prohibit someone with a mental disorder from buying a handgun.

Still, researchers of gun violence say a state law coming in October could be a tool to prevent another shooting like the bloodshed Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said Katz legally bought a .45-caliber and 9 mm handgun from a licensed dealer in the Baltimore area in recent weeks. The Columbia man traveled to a video game tournament in Jacksonville, then allegedly opened fire.

Katz, 24, killed two people and wounded 10 others before taking his own life, the sheriff said. Those killed were Elijah Clayton, 22, a football star from California, and Taylor Robertson, 28, from West Virginia.

Investigators have not offered a motive for the shooting.

On Monday, details emerged from his parents’ divorce case in Howard County that showed Katz’s behavior had long worried his family. As a teenager, he would go days without bathing, play video games until 4 a.m. on school nights and walk around the house in circles, a Howard County judge wrote in 2010. The judge wrote that Katz was failing classes at Hammond High School, ignoring teachers and counselors, and showing flashes of hostility toward his mother.

Questions have swirled about how he could have bought the handguns with Maryland’s rigorous background checks. The state laws are generally more stringent than federal prohibitions.

Under state law, someone may buy no more than one handgun in 30 days. So it remains unclear how Katz was able to buy two in “recent weeks,” as the sheriff said. The sheriff’s office did not answer questions Tuesday about the purchases.

Maryland blocks the sale of a handgun to anyone who has voluntarily entered a psychiatric treatment facility for at least 30 straight days.

Court records show Katz was admitted to Sheppard Pratt for nearly two weeks in 2007. He later spent 13 days at the Potomac Ridge mental health facility in Rockville. Neither stint would disqualify him from buying a handgun.

The records offer only a snapshot of his years of treatment. His parents, Richard and Elizabeth Katz, have not returned messages.

Maryland State Police run background checks on prospective gun buyers. A state police spokesman declined to say whether Katz passed the background check, noting the investigation continued in Jacksonville.

Officers review databases of court records, driving and juvenile histories, rap sheets and more. Since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, state police have required gun buyers to sign a waiver allowing officers to obtain limited medical information from the state health department.

“From what I’ve seen, nothing in this young man’s background would have legally prohibited him from acquiring handguns,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “He, in essence, jumped through all the hoops and didn’t have any disqualifying conditions.”

State law also disqualifies someone from buying a handgun who has been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment. Court records show no indication Katz had been involuntarily committed.

Further, the law bans handguns to anyone with both a mental disorder and history of violence.

Katz once punched a hole through his mother’s bedroom door to retrieve the video game controllers she had taken from him, she told the court.

Records show they had a fraught relationship. She called the police on him in February 2009, his father said in court records. The divorce case includes a transcript of the 911 call.

“He’s sitting here wrestling me with the cable cord to the TV. I’ve had enough with this child. He has been abusive for over two years,” his mother told the dispatcher.

And yet, court records show no sign Katz was ever charged with a violent crime.

In addition to the background check, state law requires anyone buying a handgun to be licensed. Buyers must be fingerprinted and attend a firearms safety class to receive the license.

Eric Schaffer runs a Frederick law office known as Maryland Gun Lawyers. He routinely helps people obtain and keep their guns. Katz’s case shows background checks aren’t the answer, he says.

“I just don’t see a lot of evidence they work,” he said. “Look at the list of people who have passed background checks and then been involved in mass shootings.”

Schaffer says some clients are reluctant to seek therapy for concern they would lose their guns.

Like those who research gun violence, Schaffer wonders what effect the new law will bring in October.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed the so-called “red-flag” law, allowing police to seize guns from people whom judges deem dangerous.

Under the law, family members or police can petition a court to intervene and confiscate guns from a threatening relative. As with a protective order, a judge would have to find the person poses harm.

Katz would be a likely candidate for the intervention, said Emma Beth McGinty, who researches violence and mental health at the Hopkins gun center.

“This is an individual who was exhibiting pretty clear signs of dangerous behavior,” McGinty said. “I really wish we had the red-flag law in place sooner.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

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